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Chrome kingpin Pichai promises Android upgrades

In a Q&A, Chrome leader Sundar Pichai promises the Android version will improve "by leaps and bounds" and says the browser will make Google money directly.

Sundar Pichai, leader of the Chrome effort, when Google unveiled the first beta of its browser on September 2, 2008.
Sundar Pichai, leader of the Chrome effort, when Google unveiled the first beta of its browser on September 2, 2008.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

When Google introduced Chrome in September 2008, people laughed at the bare-bones browser--no extensions, no bookmarks, no Mac version, and who needs yet another browser anyway?

Nobody's laughing now.

Under the leadership of Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai, though, Chrome dramatically extended its reach. One in five people use Chrome, according to Net Applications. Google uses the browser to push its technology agenda, even when its ideas are unpopular with colleagues in the Web standards world. Chrome is the foundation of the Chrome OS operating system, Google just released Chrome for Android, and under Chief Executive Larry Page, Chrome is one of ten Google divisions. The Chrome Web Store lets people spend money on Web apps. And reflecting the prominence the browser has inside the company, Chrome ads appear on billboards, in subway stations, on TV.

Long gone are the days when merely encouraging browser innovation was a sufficient goal. Chrome has become one of Google's most important brands and a gateway to its services.

And there are more plans afoot--including improvements to Chrome for Android and making more money directly from Chrome. Pichai described the work in an interview last week with CNET News writer Stephen Shankland. Here's an edited transcript.

Stephen Shankland: Chrome for Android has been downloaded somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 times. What do you think of the uptake?
Sundar Pichai: Given that it's a beta product and only available on ICS [Ice Cream Sandwich, aka Android 4.0, which has only barely penetrated the market], we're really happy where it is. I think most people haven't experienced it on tablets. They will discover a lot of good things there as well. We've received positive feedback, and the feature requests are pretty minor.

We are going to continue releasing Chrome for Android at a pretty healthy pace. In a year from now, we're going to take leaps and bounds.

What do people like and not like?
People generally find it fast. They generally love sync [in which Chrome on a personal computer works shares settings with the Android version]. The tab stack [which lets people switch among browser tabs] people call out and say is visually slick.

For areas for improvement, people want an ability to see the desktop version of sites. That's a common request. Second is full screen. Both fully make sense. We just want to do them correctly and well.

Third, there have been some questions about Flash [Adobe Systems' browser plug-in]. Following their road map, they clearly said they'll not support Flash for mobile in the future. They're investing a lot in HTML5. I don't expect that to be a major issue, but we will address full-screen and the ability to see desktop versions [of Web sites]. And we'll definitely bring it to many countries.

As a business, Chrome is a lot about indirect monetization--helping other Google properties make money. But what are the direct monetization possibilities for Chrome?
I wouldn't underestimate over the long run our business opportunity. We just announced Roche Group completely moved 90,000 employees to Google Apps. A few weeks ago we announced BBVA, with 30,000 employees--a bank in Spain. We see a huge shift in how people see Google Apps in the enterprise. It's in every vertical, schools, business, government. What's very interesting: with a lot of recent deployments, they're deploying Chrome. And over time, we are seeing for Chromebooks a direct monetization model for us.

If you take the Chrome ecosystem as a whole, we are primarily an enabler. Over time, we will participate more directly. You need the marketplace, even in the context of enterprise. You can bring other services with the Chrome Web Store. We are still in the early stages, when people only compare the Chrome Web Store to the mobile app stores. We see millions of installs today, but a lot of it is of a free nature, and a lot are just bookmarks. But for example with Native Client, Bastion, which you can play on your Xbox, is available on the Chrome Web Store.

Mozilla is concerned that the Chrome Web Store fragments the ecosystem by promoting Chrome-only apps.
We all are working hard to push Web apps as much as possible. If you look at the plan they outlined for Firefox, they have similar aspects as well. Because we can push to HTML5, we will do so. We deprecated Gears [a browser plug-in Google canceled in favor of related Web standards]. I see the same approach with the Web store. We are deeply, deeply committed to standards. We will always make sure HTML is the way most features are delivered.

Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, speaking at Google I/O in May 2011.
Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome, speaking at Google I/O in May 2011. Stephen Shankland/CNET

I am personally convinced that doing Gears really helped offline HTML [in which Web apps work even without a network connection] happen faster. I'm absolutely convinced adding things in the Web store will only make it come faster.

You've introduced Dart, an attempt to improve on JavaScript. Are you concerned that will fragment the Web by leading to multiple programming languages for Web apps and browsers?
We are being very thoughtful about it. When you do something aspirational and ambitions, you want to be thoughtful about it. We announced it as early as we possible can. We continue to do everything with JavaScript. We are working on a way by which you can compile down to JavaScript with Dart so it is backward compatible, so isn't as if you wrote in Dart it won't work. I'm absolutely convinced this is all for the benefit of users and developers.

We have a track record we can point to. In every instance we have taken a clear push in the direction of standards. Look at O3D. We did a bunch of 3D work. There wa a lot of momentum around WebGL. We announced we'd put all our efforts behind it. We migrated away from O3D and embraced WebGL and put it in Chrome.

When you launched Chromebooks, you said they'd be good for both consumers and enterprises. Which is the stronger business?
We are deeply interested in selling these to schools and businesses. Schools and businesses are a much more straightforward channel. And we are seeing a very strong connection to Google Apps. We have some large deployments.

Samsung's Series 5 Chromebook, one current manifestation of Chrome OS.
Samsung's Series 5 Chromebook, one current manifestation of Chrome OS.

It's very similar with what we saw with Google Apps years ago. In companies, we are seeing pilot projects. It is a long sales cycle game.

With consumers, we are very comfortable where we are. We have only made it available online through Amazon and There are many times it's been in top 20 in Amazon, the top 5 and top 10 at times. We don't have a retail push or any significant marketing push on the consumer side today. In this industry, to move a lot of volume, you need to push it. We've deliberately held back.

It's a long journey. We're deeply committed to it. We only want people who really want it [to buy it].

You talk about how Chrome OS improves steadily with the constant updates. Can you give examples of what's gotten better?
The biggest value proposition of Chrome is that we improve the experience over time. We've done it. We can measure it. If you add up the improvement in resume times [waking from sleep], my sense is we get anywhere from 30 to 50 percent faster from the first time we shipped it.

A lot of improvements in R19 [Chrome OS version 19, soon to become a developer release] are GPU improvements. Scrolling is going to feel a lot faster. The Chromebooks have a limited GPU. You won't see same improvement as on MacBook Air, but you will still see it on a Chromebook.

Have you thought about changing the direction of trackpad gestures to match Mac OS X's newer "natural scrolling"?
Making the scroll smooth is really complex. Changing the direction is a trivial thing. We haven't worried about it that much. With Chrome on Android and tablets, I think it will force the issue somewhat.

I've been frustrated with how slow my Chromebook is. I'm down with the Chrome OS vision, but it's so slow that I prefer using other computers.
We remain very excited about Chromebooks. We got a lot of positive feedback, and we are really looking forward to the next generation of Chromebooks. We will improve on the dimensions of speed, simplicity, and security.

So Chromebooks won't fade away?
We need to fundamentally push the Web to a much better place. It's being challenged with app stores and native apps. There's so much call for innovation.